Rest, Recovery, and the Next Adventure

I looked on, I thought, I reflected, I admired, in a state of stupefaction not altogether unmingled with fear!
— Jules Verne
Photo by Larry Stephenss

Photo by Larry Stephenss

As I stood at the top of a mountain during a long training run, I pulled out my phone to see if I had service. It was (I thought) over an hour into the HURT 100 lottery and, with cautious optimism, I wanted to check the status. Nothing. No names posted on the website. I checked credit card transactions. Nothing. No new charges. I checked my email. Nothing. No messages from Ultrasignup. “I guess that’s it,” I said to Larry. “This wasn’t my year.” With disappointment I put my phone away and I stared out into the vast openness of the Columbia River Gorge. “What’s next?” I thought.

I am a planner. I appreciate spontaneity as much as anyone, but it’s in my nature to plan and to be prepared. When it comes to races, I often plan 2-3 years in advance, partially because I know how much training I will need to do and how much I still have to learn and partially because, well, making big plans is expensive, especially when you’re on your own.

Because I’m a planner, it didn’t surprise me after Badwater when friends and family asked me what was next. Those who know me know I’m always planning something, and I was (tentatively). Badwater, though, was unlike any race experience I’ve ever had. After putting so much time, energy, money, love, hope, and life into something so huge, all I wanted to do (all I still want to do) was have a couple weeks to just be tired and to savor the unlikely reality that I actually made it. For that reason, and because I didn’t know if my plans would actually come to fruition, I was hesitant to answer the “what’s next?” question.

Last Saturday, when I returned home from a long day of running, I opened the lottery results page one last time, but saw that the lottery was actively taking place. I had apparently miscalculated the time difference. I stood hunched over my phone, leaning against my kitchen counter in my sweaty running clothes, hoping to see my name appear. Name after name appeared, but not mine. Then, 87 draws in, there it was. I refreshed the page no less than five times to confirm that it was actually there. I screamed (my neighbors probably still wonder what’s wrong with the freak next door).

So, what’s next? For now, I am actively training to run one more 100-miler this year. After that, I plan to take some down time to give my body and, more importantly, my mind some needed rest. After that, I’m excited to say that I’m going to be challenged by trails I’ve never traversed, see beauty I’ve never seen, travel to a place I’ve never been, and experience pain like I’ve never experienced. In January, I will have the privilege of running the HURT 100, a race that’s been on my short list of goals for a long, long time.

 

Badwater 135: Duct Tape and Determination

Find what you love and let it kill you.
Let it drain you of your all. Let it cling onto your back and weigh you down into eventual nothingness.
Let it kill you and let it devour your remains.
For all things will kill you, both slowly and fastly, but it’s much better to be killed by a lover.
— Charles Bukowski
Running into the sunset on night one (photo by Ron Jones).

Running into the sunset on night one (photo by Ron Jones).

As I sat on the edge of the passenger seat of our van, my legs hanging over the edge and blistering in the sun, I lifted my head from the palms of my hands and I started to hyperventilate. Tears streamed down my face. I looked into Jenn's eyes: "I've come too far for this," I cried with what was left of my voice. I started to gasp for air. "This can't be happening. I've come too far." Jenn  matched my stare with equal intensity: "Des, you can do this." I had come 114 miles. I had come too far for it to be over. 

Jenn, Darin, Jeff, and me before driving to the start. 

Jenn, Darin, Jeff, and me before driving to the start. 

Race Day:

Race day began unlike any other. Because Badwater now begins at night, runners have the entire day to eat, sleep (if they can), prepare, and overanalyze all of the things they have and have not done. I slept as long as I could that morning, which (interrupted) was until about 7:30 a.m. After that, I was up for the day. I ate and I ate some more. I packed my bags. I taped my feet. I nervously paced around. I tried unsuccessfully to nap. I waited. Initially, I was seeded to start in the middle (9:30 p.m.) wave. However, once I knew the severity of my injuries earlier this year, I requested to be moved to the first (8:00 p.m.) wave, not knowing how well I would be moving when race day came. Finally, the time to get dressed and prepare to leave. 

The wind was blowing hard at Badwater Basin when we arrived at 7:30 p.m. The hot air brushed my skin as I watched the sun sink along the horizon during weigh in.  It was ~110 degrees and I had goosebumps. A volunteer wrapped a GPS tracker around my arm and I ran down the ramp to join the other runners at the staring line. Chris Kostman read the names of the 8:00 p.m. starters. Mine was not one of them. It was a reminder that I was not seeded to be in that wave, that I had been injured, that I had barely made it to that start line. The National Anthem played and my eyes welled with tears. No, that was not my starting wave, but I had made it nonetheless. After two months of injury and three hard-fought months of training, against all odds, I had made it. I was there. I was about to start the Styr Labs Badwater 135. 

Badwater Basin to Stovepipe Wells (~mile 42):

When I started the race, I was tired from all of the excitement and from being up for a full day, but, apart from the normal taper twinges, I felt pretty good. I was warm right from the start, but not uncomfortable. That was reassuring as I headed into the night.

After two miles, I saw my crew for the first time. I picked up my headlamp and asked to trade my sun hat for my Pine to Palm 100 trucker, the hat I had worn for 3 out of 4 races in my slam last year and the hat I had worn for every long training run leading up to Badwater. “That feels like home,” I said as I started to leave. “You’re moving too fast," Darin said as I ran off. Slow down. I didn’t feel like I was moving fast at all. In fact, it felt incredibly slow. Still, I listened to his warning and tried to slow my pace. When I saw my crew again another two miles down the road, Darin and Jenn reiterated that I was moving too fast. Again, I tried to focus on slowing down, this time by flat out walking. When I saw them for a third time, they said my pace was better. By that time, though, I was focused on something else: the calf sleeves I had worn to protect my legs from the sun had started to rub and irritate my legs. While I had trained with those sleeves and was confident in their fit, I had not anticipated my legs swelling so quickly, perhaps due to the long day moving around already. We adjusted the sleeves so I could keep them on as long as possible, and I kept moving.
 

Photo by Jennifer Van Vlack.

Photo by Jennifer Van Vlack.


Just when the calf sleeves felt better, my left hip flexor started to ache. This wasn’t an issue I’d ever had in training and definitely wasn’t an issue I was aware of entering the race, but it became so unbearable that, by mile 20, I was having trouble even walking, let alone running. Downhill, which is normally my strength, was excruciating. I tried to remain calm. It was too early for something to feel this bad. I had to do something about it. When I saw my crew next, I asked for a tennis ball and tried to dig into my hip flexor by leaning against the van. While I did that, Darin and Jenn laid towels down on the ground and told me to lie down. Darin started to dig into my hip flexor until he found the trigger point. “There it is,” he said. He felt it right away. He dug into my hip for several minutes and then I got up and stretched. I took off running like a new person. I had almost no pain for 4 miles, but then it started to hurt again. We repeated the same lying down on the ground while Darin dug into my hip flexor process until about mile 60. I still don’t know if my hip flexor stopped hurting or something else started to hurt worse, but, after mile 60, it was no longer an issue until after the race.

I pressed on, knowing that I would finally get to have a pacer after mile 42. Running Badwater is, in many ways, a very isolating experience. Because the runners start in waves, there are often not a lot of people on the road at the same time. Likewise, for safety reasons, runners cannot run abreast. For that reason, the opportunities to talk to other runners are few and far between. It is truly a race in which the competitors battle themselves and the elements and no one else. First, I counted down the number of crew stops before a pacer could join me. Then, I counted down the miles. I had already asked Jenn if she would be first. Whether she knew it or not, I felt like she was a kindred spirit and my rock going into the race, and I knew having her behind me would be want I needed.

When I reached Stovepipe Wells at mile 42, I ran in limping. I felt great, but my hip flexor was hurting again. I checked in, used the bathroom, and then Jenn and Darin sat me down on the ground again. I ate as Darin dug into my hip flexor.

Stovepipe Wells to Panamint Springs (~mile 72.7):

The sun started to rise and Jenn and I were off, beginning the 16-mile, ~5,000 ft. climb to Towne Pass. It was a long climb and it started to get hot as quickly as the sun started to rise. Still, having Jenn with me gave me a boost of energy. There were times that I started to beat myself up, saying “I feel like I should be running this,” but then Jenn would tell me to look behind at how far we had climbed to help me realize just how much we were ascending and that I was doing exactly what I should be doing. Coming from the trail, that was a battle I constantly felt throughout this race. Although I was aware of the long climbs, I constantly felt like I should be running because I was on the road.

After a couple miles, Jenn, Darin, and Jeff began a pacer rotation. We did a similar rotation when I crewed and paced my friend Larry in 2014, and it seemed to work well for us too. Each of them offered a different perspective, a different approach to running and racing, and has different experience. They made for a great pacing team.

When I finally reached the top of Towne Pass at around 100k, my hip still continued to hurt. Darin, Jenn, and Jeff again laid me down on the ground. Bees swarmed around my head as Jeff fed me and Darin and Jenn worked on various achy parts of my body. Before I set out again, I asked Darin to cut my calf sleeves off. My legs were continuing to swell and the calf sleeves were starting to restrict blood flow entirely. Once that was done, Jeff and I set out, prepared to make the hot descent into Panamint Valley.

As Jeff and I began the descent, I felt a renewed sense of energy having reached and passed the 100k mark. In my mind, that was a milestone. Not long after, I pulled off the road to pee. When I got back on, I instantly felt excruciating pain in one of my left toes, a toe that had suffered the loss of a nail and part of the toe itself in the 12-hour race I’d run a month prior. I screamed in pain. I had no idea what had happened. I started to limp. I asked Jeff to flag down our van when it passed -- I clearly needed to do something about my foot -- but our van had already passed.

After half mile or so of limping, we approached a turnout spot off the road. A voice yelled: “Are you Desiree?” Jeff and I paused. “Yes,” I said. “Desiree, I’m John. Tonya Olson sent me to find you. I’ve been looking for you since Furnace Creek.” I was completely taken aback. “I can’t believe you’re here right now.” I leaned on Jeff in disbelief. “It’s John Vonhof! John takes care of feet!” I exclaimed.  I limped over to him and sat on the edge of another runner's van. As I cringed in pain, Jeff put his arm around me and held my hand while John poked around my toe and taped it back up. There were no apparent issues other than that it had rubbed completely raw. The immediate pain I had felt a half mile earlier had likely been from inadvertently kicking one of the many rocks along the pass.  Having John tape my toe and tell me I was okay was exactly what I needed to continue. “There are so many people from all over who want to see you finish this race, Des” Jeff said as we walked away. Tears welled in my eyes. I knew he was right. I have never felt more cared for than I did at that moment.

When we next saw the crew, I took a few minutes to care for my feet, changing my socks an retaping them. With a renewed sense of perseverance, I was ready to cross Panamint

Descending into the Panamint Valley was extremely hot. By the time we started to cross the valley and climb to Panamint Springs, the wind had picked up and a sandstorm had started. As Jenn and I slowly pushed through the sand and wind, I looked up at the climb ahead. It was as though I could see uphill for miles, spots of white scattered along the road with a haze of dust surrounding them. The sun beat down on us as Jenn sprayed the last of the water she had on my back. "Do you want me to spray you with the water in my bottle?" she asked. "No," I said. "You need that." We were both almost out of water, despite having refilled 3 or so miles prior, and I knew it was going to be a long, uphill battle until we saw the van again. Spraying me down was a luxury we couldn't afford. At that moment, as I watched the spots of white climb through the storm, the race became real. I was there. I was crossing the desert. I was actually running Badwater. We passed a road sign that showed the mileage back to Furnace Creek and the mileage ahead to Lone Pine. I stopped and hugged Jenn: "We're going to make it!"

When we finally reached Panamint Springs, Darin and Jeff were waiting for us with real food from the restaurant there. After I ate, the plan was for me to rest for 15 minutes before beginning the ~3,000 ft. climb up Father Crowley. This was the first moment in over a day that I actually felt semi human. We sat outside on the patio of a small country store and ate wraps and chips as we watched one wind-beaten runner after another stumble in. "You look better than a lot of the people here," Darin said as he guided me to the van. I tried to rest with little success, but, still, for 15 amazing minutes, I got out of the wind.

Panamint Springs through Father Crowley (~mile 86/summit):

Refueling at the Father Crowley summit, ~mile 86 (photo by Jenn Love).

Refueling at the Father Crowley summit, ~mile 86 (photo by Jenn Love).

When I left Panamint Springs, I felt better, both physically and mentally, but I was exhausted and was dreading the long, windy climb ahead. To make things worse, my left hamstring had started to hurt, probably the result of compensation for the left hip flexor. Still, I pushed on, encouraged by the quiet support of Darin, who had become my rock in these late miles. He knew when I needed quiet and he knew when I needed him to talk. He knew when to push me. He kept me safe around the sharp turns. The stretch up Father Crowley is long and extremely windy. It also felt more heavily traveled than the previous sections of the course, and so we were vigilant. 

Jenn, Jeff, and Darin continued to trade off pacing duties as I made my way through the ~15-mile climb. We decided that, once I reached the top, I would stop there to refuel, change clothes, and try to rest again. Another 15-minute timer set. Despite being exhausted, though, I was unable to sleep. Soon, I was off into the darkness again, another long night ahead.    

I remember very little from the rest of that second night. I remember being so tired I was listing on the road. I remember sleep walking and running. I remember hallucinating chairs because all I wanted to do was sit down. I remember pushing through anyway. I remember Jeff’s elation when he saw a scorpion for the first time and I remember singing with Jenn to stay awake. I remember Darin keeping watch when I collapsed in the middle of the road and slept for 5 of the most solid minutes I’ve ever slept. I remember feeling just how much they cared about me and helping me reach my goal. I remember pain and exhaustion, but I do not remember suffering. I remember thinking of my friend Larry and feeling comforted knowing he was out there too. Miles apart, we were still running together, and that brought me peace. I remember feelings of hope and anticipation and excitement and fear. I remember pushing through anyway. I remember reaching the 100-mile mark. Another milestone. 

Keeler to Lone Pine (mile 122):

As the second day dawned, I made my way closer to the town of Keeler (mile 108), which I remembered from 2014 as being close to Lone Pine, the final milestone before beginning the ascent to the finish line. With the sunrise and a little cold brew, I found my 100th wind and was running strong. Jenn was running with me again and, as she sprayed down my back, I felt a burning feeling on the surface of my right calf. I stopped to look down, expecting to see a gash of some sort, but nothing was there. I continued running. Several miles later, the pain became intense, and I stopped to look at it again. At this point, the skin had burned bright red and sun blisters were beginning to form. The pain was excruciating. The skin was so burned that it hurt to move my leg at all. I stumbled over to the van at the next stop. I didn't know what to do, Problem after problem, we had patched me up over and over again. I didn't know how we were going to do it again. "I feel like I'm being held together by duct tape," I said to Darin with a hoarse voice. At that moment, all emotions came to a head (being so close and still so far away, the pain, the frustration, the exhaustion) and I started to cry as Darin layered KT Tape over the blisters. My legs hung over the side of the van and I buried my head in the palms of my hands: "I've come too far for this." "You can do this," Jenn said, and the three of them helped me out of the van. Jeff handed me three ibuprofen and Darin handed me a cold brew. I took both and then Jeff and I were off. 

Jenn and me around mile 120 (photo by Darin Swanson).

Jenn and me around mile 120 (photo by Darin Swanson).

My legs were tired, but they felt fine. Still, I was barely able to hold a 15:00 mile due to the pain from the blisters. Jeff walked with me, his positive words propelling me forward. Soon, he traded places with Darin: "You're not going to like me much," Darin said, "but you're going to do what I say." I nodded my head because I had long lost my voice. "You see that ditch over there? Your pain goes there. The muscles you need to climb Whitney are not the same muscles you need to run, so trash them." I nodded again, and I started to shuffle. Soon, we were rotating running and fast walking between mileposts, each one a small victory. Darin rotated handing me Gu and throat drops. Soon, the fast walking became less frequent and the stretches of running became longer. "Make me breathe hard!" Darin said, and I ran faster. I looked down at my watch. I was running a sustained 8:00 pace. "See those green trees up ahead?" Darin said. "That's Lone Pine." I whimpered the only response I could without a voice, but Darin heard it. He knew how much that meant. I ran faster. 7:45, 7:30, 6:55. I ran as hard as I possible could. Lone Pine got closer. 

Darin traded off pacing duties with Jenn, and she jumped in as though she'd been running with me the entire time. We saw Lone Pine. It was like coming home. I knew the turns. I remembered the town. As we approached the final time station, I heard people yelling my name. I glanced over to see Larry and his crew. It was a piece of home. I ran faster because I was getting closer. I ran faster for the people who were there to support me. I ran faster for the people who believed in me. I ran faster for Larry, whose unyielding support got me to that point.

Lone Pine to Whitney Portal (~mile 135):

Photo by Jenn Love.

Photo by Jenn Love.

As I turned the corner to begin the final 13-mile, 5,000 ft. ascent up Portal Road, I stopped to hug Jenn. "Will you stick with me?" I asked. "I'll be with you until you don't want me here," she said, and we climbed through the Alabama Hills. The pavement I remembered from 2014 soon turned to gravel due to road construction. The smell of tar permeated the air and it became hard to breathe. I stopped to use my inhaled several times. 

The climb got steeper and steeper, but eventually turned to pavement again. Jenn and I joked that we never thought we'd be so happy to see pavement. The freshly-surfaced, hot road burned beneath my feet and it felt like they were on fire. My power hike turned to a shuffle and, eventually, to a slow crawl. Darin traded off with Jenn and started to push me again. This time, though, I was  moving as fast as I could. I had nothing left.

The climb was long and hot. My feet burned. The sun blisters on my calf stung. I was exhausted and starving, but I couldn't stomach much of anything. It took everything I had to fight down one final Gu. As we gained altitude, I started to wheeze. 

Finished (photo by Chris Kostman.

Finished (photo by Chris Kostman.

With anticipation, I kept looking ahead. I knew when we saw Jenn and Jeff again, I would only have one mile left. Cars drove down
Portal Road, previous finishers honking and cheering. The support and camaraderie was palpable. Our races were different, but we had been through the same hell. I climbed that mountain with my hands on my knees and my head held high. Badwater had killed me over and over again, but I had risen from the ashes and was still climbing. The person who reached Whitney Portal that day was not the same person who charged out of Badwater Basin 42 hours prior. When I reached Whitney Portal, I knew I could no longer by broken. "I wish I could tell my dad," I said. "He knows," Darin replied."

Soon, we saw Jenn and Jeff and I moved a little faster. The four of us climbed that last mile together, finishing something we'd all fought for all night and day and night and day again. We all crossed the finish line together, and we all finished Badwater. 

Photo by Chris Kostman.

Photo by Chris Kostman.

The Journey to Badwater: The Why

 

He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how.
— Friedrich Nietzsche

Every person who attempts the Badwater 135 has a reason; it’s even a question on the application. Why? Why would you want to put yourself through the grueling months of training? Why would you want to suffer through the heat and the miles upon miles of pain? Why do you think you can do it? Why do you think you deserve to? Why? It’s a small, but loaded question. We all have our reasons, and they are very personal and individual, but we all have our reasons. 

To me, running 100+ miles is, at its core, a raw and primitive experience. Much like the training itself, it is an exercise in patience and problem solving, survival, tenacity, and will. Those who reach the finish line are stripped of all superfluity and left with only the visceral characteristics that enable them reach that point. They are simultaneously strong and vulnerable; they are raw in its purest sense. Badwater 135 epitomizes that experience to me, and I want to live that experience to the fullest extent. I want to be stripped of all of the excess, to be broken down and rise again. I want to prove to myself that I can rise to the challenge, embrace the pain, and emerge on the other side stronger for the experience. Badwater is everything I never thought I could be and everything I want to prove to myself that I am.

The last several months have been some of the most difficult I have ever experienced, both physically and emotionally. I have been broken down over and over and over again. I have beaten myself up over and over and over again. I have cried, I have yelled in frustration, and I have been injured. I strained my hamstring, strained my quad, tore my groin, and tore my hip flexor. I have fallen and I have gotten back up over and over and over again. My body is stronger and my skin is thicker. My scars are visible markers of hard effort. I took the road less traveled every single day. Long runs, short runs, night runs, doubles, physical therapy, hills, layers, the sauna. Whether tired, sick, injured, depressed, discouraged, hungry, nauseous, stressed, or frustrated, I persisted. When I didn't think I was good enough, I tried harder. When I was nervous, I tried harder. When I was afraid, I tried harder. Every time I broke down, I picked up the pieces and I tried even harder, because that's what you do when you want something with every fiber of who you are; you find a way. Regardless of how my race ends, I will know this much is true: I wanted Badwater more than it hurt, and I showed up every single day.

It took courage for me to apply for this race, and it will take humility to finish it. It will be the hardest thing I've ever done, and I can honestly say that I am now prepared to take the journey in a way I wasn't before. I am nervous and I am excited, but I am not afraid. The Journey to Badwater is nearing its end, but the journey to Mt. Whitney is just beginning.

  

 

 

The Journey to Badwater: Comparison and Acceptance

Mind is everything. Muscle-pieces of rubber. All that I am, I am because of my mind.
— Paavo Nurmi

They say that "Comparison is the thief of joy," and it is true. I have never been one to compare myself to others. We all have our strengths and weaknesses, good days and bad. We all have the things on which we choose to focus and the things we choose to compromise in exchange. We all have our limitations (family, health, work, relationships). In recent weeks, though, as my injuries have slowly continued to heal, comparison has overtaken my mind, comparison to a former version of me.

Now that I am able to run again, I am constantly faced with the memory of the pre-injury version of myself, and the further removed I am from the runner I was before my injuries, the better that athlete is in my mind and the weaker the athlete is that I am now. I am now able to run cautiously, but not without pain entirely. My fitness is not where it was. My lungs ache to keep up. I am slower. Taking seven weeks off meant that there was no time for a gradual return if I still planned on running Badwater. For that reason, I am tired. I am tired all the time. There are days when I set out to run and I struggle, I fight, for every single step. It's demoralizing and defeating. It has crushed my spirit. It frustrates me and it makes me feel weak. 

Although I've continued to make slow progress and am training within my limits, my mind has been paralyzed by fear of experiencing that sort of pain again and by feelings of inadequacy. Some of those feelings are warranted, most of them are not. Still, they sit on my shoulders like a weighted vest. Perhaps this is not the reality for most people returning from injury -- it certainly never was for me in the past -- but it's my daily existence as I claw my way back from what has been my most severe and debilitating injury to date. There are days when the self doubt weights so heavily on me that I feel like I'm sinking in mud or treading water rather than running. My mind beats me down, telling me that I'm not strong enough, or fast enough, or good enough. It tells me that I don't deserve the opportunity I've been given. Every day, though, I fight this voice and I train. I run, I walk, I hike, I crosstrain, I sit in the sauna. I remind myself that I don't take on challenges because I know I can conquer them; I take on challenges because I want to face the prospect of failure head on and overcome my fears. As I move forward in these final 6 weeks leading up to Badwater, I am trying to redirect my focus to the progress I have made, to think about the things I am doing right, and to think about what I have and am continuing to overcome. I am getting stronger every day, mentally and physically. 

When I reach the start line In Death Valley, I won't look back on my training and think it was ideal. I won't look back on my training and know that I did everything I had hoped and planned to do. I will, though, look back on my training and know that I did everything I could with the body and the time that I had, and that's all any of us can hope to say. Acceptance. 

The Journey to Badwater: Chronicales from the Sauna

In addition to the long hours on the road, the hill training, quad pounding, strength training, and PT, training for Badwater has also involved countless hours in the sauna. Most days, this is an innocuous experience. I go to a large gym in the suburbs, frequented mostly by stay-at-home moms and business professionals. When I enter the sauna, I’m often greeted by name by people who want to know how my training is going or, most recently, how my injuries are healing. We don’t talk for long, but we recognize each other as the normal ones who come to the gym with a purpose and then go home to eat dinner, sleep, and start the day again tomorrow. These are not the people you will read about below. The people you will read about below are the ones who make you ask “What. The Fu*k?”

The Honey Latherer: This woman is one of the most high-maintenance people I have ever encountered. Ever. Before entering the sauna, she places her large tote of cosmetics on the ledge outside the sauna. She then enters, spreads out as though on a beach, and proceeds to lather herself in honey. She then assumes the fetal position and moans sporadically for the remainder of the time.

The Cell Phone Talker: This person is a multitasker and uses the time spent in the sauna to catch up with family and friends on the phone…on speaker…

The Couple: There is always a couple. They lift weights together. They do cardio together. They take group fitness classes together. They go to the sauna together. Togetherness is great. In fact, if you can find a partner who enjoys the same things you do and whose presence helps motivate you to stay on track with your fitness goals, all the better. However, I have never loved someone so much that I’ve wanted to cuddle with that person at 190 degrees, and swapping bodily fluids as your body purges them isn’t okay.

The Blindfolded Boxer: This man’s sauna attire consists of sweatpants and a wife beater. No criticism from me there. If you’re able to wear sweats in the sauna without wanting to kill yourself or someone else, more power to you. He then wraps a towel around his eyes and remains blindfolded while he paces back and forth and shadow boxes. Once he missed the shadow and hit me.

The Toucher: This is the man with no boundaries. The one who sits right next to you when the room is completely empty. On one occasion, one of these men sat next to me and put his hand on my knee. This was not a wise decision at 190 degrees.

The D-Bag: There are so many versions of this man. He normally enters the sauna when it’s crowded, spreads out everything he owns as though the large gym doesn’t have an equally large locker room, and lies down, devoid of consideration for the packed room of individuals waiting to sit down.

The Truckers: One afternoon, I had the pleasure of sharing the sauna with two truck drivers who were passing through town. I quietly stretched as they shared their political beliefs and common animosity toward the government for trying to take away their gun rights. They then moved on to talking about their recent trips to Canada and compared notes on where they could get “the best young ass for the best price.” One of the men glanced up at me: “Excuse my French.” Dude, of all the things you’ve said in the last 10 minutes, your use of the word “ass” was the least offensive.

The Porn Watcher: On one very special occasion, a man sat down next to me in an otherwise empty sauna and benignly appeared to be listening to music on his phone. A few minutes later, I heard him breathing heavily, which caught my attention. He was clearly in poor physical health and I was concerned that the heat was having a negative effect. Then he started to moan and my concern increased. I glanced over at him, his face glued to the screen of his phone. He looked okay. Then I glanced down at the screen only to realize he was watching porn.

The Reader: Many people pass the time in the sauna reading. If I weren’t such a profuse sweater, I might do the same. One day, as I jogged in place in a far corner, staring at the wall, contemplating my stupidity and wondering when exactly my heart was going to explode, a woman asked: “Are you going to be doing that long? It’s really distracting me from reading the paper.” I caught my breath and waited for my heart rate to drop to an “I probably won’t slap you” rate before responding: “It’s a gym, and I’m here to train, so yeah,” and I continued jogging. She stormed out.

The Journey to Badwater: Crawling My Way Back

Long is the way and hard that out of Hell leads up to light.
— John Milton
My first view of trail in 7 weeks.

My first view of trail in 7 weeks.

“This is fucking bull shit!” I yelled, as I stood in the middle of the sidewalk at 3:30 a.m., staring up at the pitch black sky, shouting into nothing like Tom Hanks in Cast Away. I had reached the peak of my frustration. 6 weeks post fall, I was finally able to power walk and shuffle slowly. It wasn’t the training I was used to, but it was, nonetheless, race-specific training for Badwater. I took what I could get, trying to remain optimistic that running couldn’t be far off. On this morning, I was shuffling along at a 13:00 pace when I felt another spike in pain. I had no idea why. I was barely moving. How could anything possibly hurt? As with all things, though, the pain eventually subsided, and I was able to continue on. Such has been my training for the last month as I slowly inch my way back.

I started with short power walks on the treadmill and then moved to longer power walks outside. One Saturday, I walked over 21 miles of pavement. It took an extremely long time, but, as someone who wasn't able to get up to fill her water bottle, carry a bag of groceries, or get in and out of the shower unassisted a month prior, it was progress. “I saw the sun rise this morning, I breathed fresh aid, and I even shot a snot rocket,” I texted a friend. Progress.

Most mornings now I get up at 2:45 a.m. because it takes me longer to cover the distance I once did. My power walk has turned into a slow shuffle, and there have been a couple times that I might even call it a “run,” but I don’t want to get ahead of myself. The rest of my training is a combination of endless PT exercises, yoga, strength training, and time spent jogging in place in the sauna. Last weekend, I set foot on a trail for the first time in 7 weeks. I was terrified. I still haven't gone on singletrack for fear that I might slip and tear my healing groin and hip flexor --I can’t fathom experiencing that kind of pain again. I have not run with anyone. I withdrew from my next race. Any self confidence I had has taken a hard hit, and I need to find it again. It’s part of the healing process, I suppose.

I’m now 7+ weeks post fall. I’m still in some pain and don't have full range of motion. I walk gingerly and, if only mentally, need the security of solid ground beneath my feet. I am, however, making forward progress, relentlessly and optimistically. I’m getting in solid mileage again and am fortunate to have the unyielding support of an amazing crew that has agreed to make the journey to Death Valley with me. Who knows? Maybe in a couple weeks I’ll even feel confident saying I can run.

 

The Journey to Badwater: Time and Patience

The strongest of all warriors are these two — Time and Patience.
— Tolstoy
Hagg Lake 50k.

Hagg Lake 50k.

My three-year journey to Badwater has been an exercise in persistence and patience from the beginning, from qualifying and gaining experience to waiting for the decision to be made on my application. The last several weeks have been no different. Almost one month ago, I fell at mile 25 during a 50k race. It was a distance I ran almost weekly and a race I had run 4 preceding times. There was no reason for the fall other than bad luck and bad conditions. I instantly felt pain in my groin and inner thigh. I stopped for a minute, and then continued on, walking as needed, and somehow still managed to finish with a 6-minute course PR. 

By that evening, I was confident I had a minor groin pull, so I took some ibuprofen, elevated my leg, and iced. The next morning, I awoke sore, but felt well enough to run the 25k I was registered to run. I made it 6 miles before the pain was so excruciating that I had to walk off course for fear of doing permanent damage. I repeated the ibuprofen/ice/elevation sequence, and it became clear to me that I'd have to take a couple days off. I continued to baby the injury and saw my massage therapist, but, by the next work day, I had to call in sick because the pain had gotten so bad that I couldn't get to the bathroom without crawling or holding onto walls, let alone get down the stairs of my second-floor walkup to get to my car. 

I patiently spent the next 9 days diligently taking large quantities of ibuprofen, applying ice and heat, elevating, and resting. Still, I was unable to sleep through the night because the throbbing pain was so excruciating. I hobbled around work as little possible and tried to maintain a positive outlook. "It's been over a week," I'd tell myself. "I must be in the home stretch now."

By day 10, I was so nauseous from the massive dosages of ibuprofen that I stopped taking it all together. I was feeling a little better, so it seemed like the best decision. Besides, I was in the home stretch. The next several days, the pain that I had masked with NSAIDS surfaced fully and I was so nauseous from the pain that I couldn't eat. The throbbing continued, now during the day and night, and I couldn't sleep. Still, I tried to remain positive. Two weeks. I was in the home stretch. 

Finally, it hit me. I was over two weeks into this injury. I had taken 9 days off entirely. I was still in excruciating pain. I couldn't go up or down the stairs to my apartment without crying. I wasn't in the home stretch and it wasn't minor. I was in physical pain like I have never experienced in my life. I was scared. I went to a dark place, darker than I have ever been. I didn't want to talk to anyone. I didn't want to see anyone. I wanted the world to stop so I could deal with the fear that I was losing Badwater. The world didn't stop, though. Still, I had to get up every morning and crawl out of bed. Still, I had to go to work and hobble around the office. Still, I had to deal with people staring, commenting, and asking about my limp. 

After 2.5 weeks, I saw a chiropractor. Her diagnosis was a bleak one, and, that night, I finally broke down. All of the tears that I had pushed away, all of the fear I had hidden with positive thoughts, three years of emotional investment in Badwater, all of it poured out and I cried for hours. When the tears finally stopped and I pulled my thoughts together, I decided that I was unwilling to accept the diagnosis without a second opinion. The next day, I saw my athletic trainer, whom I have come to trust immeasurably over the years. Seeing her made me feel monumentally better, both mentally and physically. She had a couple of thoughts about what had happened, neither of which was good, but neither definitively put me out of Badwater either.  We agreed that the next course of action would be to see a sports medicine doctor at Oregon Health and Science University (OHSU). That evening, I made an appointment, but they couldn't see me for a week. So, once again, I had to be patient. 

Today, I finally saw a doctor at OHSU and I had x-rays. As is typical for my injuries, the doctor wasn't able to come to a firm diagnosis. The x-rays were negative, ruling out an avulsion fracture and making a stress fracture highly unlikely. In all likelihood, I have a severe adductor/groin strain, but that's still unconfirmed. So, for now, I wait. Patiently sometimes, impatiently most, I wait. I wait for the morning that I wake up and feel normal again so that I can run. In the meantime, my pain has decreased significantly and life is a little better. I am crosstraining and I am moving forward with my travel and race plans, fighting just as hard for the start line as I will for the finish line. 

Fuck Yes! The Journey to Badwater

The best thing you can possibly do with your life is to tackle the motherfucking shit out of it.
— Cheryl Strayed
Larry and me at Badwater (~mile 132), 2014.

Larry and me at Badwater (~mile 132), 2014.

I call it the “fuck yes moment,” the moment after everything finally comes together, the moment you realize “that just happened!” We all have these moments: sometimes they follow a perfect first date, a perfect race performance, a job offer you’ve been waiting for (or leaving a job you hated), sometimes one good run after two weeks of staleness, and sometimes after something we’ve secretly (or not so secretly) wished for comes true. It’s the moment when hope is restored and we revel in feelings of possibility. In 2014, my “fuck yes moment” was the day after the Western States lottery. It was a Sunday and, like most Sundays, I spent it running trail with a friend. I will forever remember that run not because we went anywhere out of the ordinary or because anything eventful happened; I’ll remember it because of the way I felt when everything finally came to fruition. That empty placeholder on my race schedule, the one that had, for years, just read “the dream,” was finally going to be filled.

My “fuck yes moment” this year came after receiving an invitation to run the 2016 Badwater 135. My journey to Badwater started three years ago when, during an average Saturday run with my friend Larry, I mentioned that I wanted to run Badwater someday: “But not until I run Western States,” I said. That had to come first. I knew my road ahead was long and I was nowhere near ready. I needed to qualify, I needed more experience volunteering and supporting, and I needed more race experience. Larry revealed that he was submitting his application to Badwater for the following year, and I offered my support if he got in. That following summer, I found myself running behind him along a stretch of pavement in Death Valley, completely in awe by his strength and fortitude.

After Larry’s journey through Death Valley and his incredible finish, we sat on the patio of a small restaurant, eating pizza as we watched runners begin the final 13-mile ascent to Whitney Portal. Larry looked at me and asked: “So, do you still want to run it?” “Now more than ever,” I replied. He smiled the smile he always has when he knows I’ve resolved to do something, the smile that tells me he knows I’ll succeed.

Last December, almost two years after that run when I told Larry I wanted to run Badwater, he sent me a text: “Everything from this point forward is about Badwater,” and so it was. We both took a leap of faith and started training and planning, hoping the stars would align for us. I was sure they would for him, but I wasn’t sure they would for me. There are so many people more experienced and more qualified to run a race like Badwater; I knew the odds were against me, and I told myself if I didn’t get in, I would continue to build my resume and apply again. In the meantime, there would be other races. Still, I had to try. I submitted my application materials the day the application opened, and then I waited, mostly impatiently. On Monday this week, I didn’t sleep. I was too nervous for the email I knew I’d receive the next day, the one that would either make my year or bring disappointment. On Tuesday, I anxiously sat on the edge of my seat at work, waiting, until, finally, I received a message from AdventureCORPS that began with “We regret to inform you…” My stomach dropped and I was overcome with more disappointment than I anticipated. Then I read on: “that you have been accepted to compete in the 2016 STYR Labs Badwater 135…” My hands started to shake. My stomach filled with butterflies. I instantly texted Larry. And, then, “fuck yes!” Fuck yes, I qualified. Fuck yes, I gained the experience I needed. Fuck yes, this goal is coming to fruition. Fuck yes, I'm running Badwater!

To My Running Family: Thank You

There are far, far better things ahead than any we leave behind.
— C.S. Lewis

The end of the year inevitably gives one pause. It's a time of reflection, a time to think back on goals we set, steps we took, sacrifices we made, hardships we suffered, and the things we overcame. It's a time to remember those who are no longer in our lives, to think about those who have joined our journeys, and to be thankful for those who continue to be part of our lives as a new year approaches, those who have said "Hey, you're not so bad. Let's do it again next year." Now, more than ever, I want to thank those who have supported me always, but especially throughout this last year. Your encouragement when I doubted myself, shoulders when I cried, calming voices when anxiety took hold, patience when I faltered, and, most of all, love, gave me the strength to accomplish everything I was able to accomplish this year. To those who believed in me when I didn't believe in myself: thank you.

I also want to thank Nuun Hydration, Evolution Healthcare, and Trail Butter for their support through this year. I look forward to working with them, in addition to Pearl Izumi, in 2016. 

While race photos capture hard-earned moments, they don't often capture the journey or the people that helped you reach those moments. To the extent that I have those photos, they are my true year in review. 3,350 miles run. That was a lot of adventure.

Self-Worth Is Not A Number

Three weeks ago, I stopped wearing my fitness tracker. I also stopped keeping a food journal, monitoring my water intake, and weighing myself regularly. All of the technology, the resources, and the apps have a place and have various, often very beneficial, uses. I personally started wearing a fitness tracker and keeping a food journal several years ago to help monitor my expended calories vs. calories consumed so I could refuel and replenish more effectively because doing so was a big issue for me at the time. For others, these resources are helpful in promoting a more active lifestyle and aiding in weight loss. The devices and apps are, however, only effective if the data is being used meaningfully. It doesn't matter if the device tells you how many steps you've taken or how much you've slept or if the app tells you how many calories you've consumed vs burned if you don't use that information in a meaningful way. Good intentions are one thing; deliberate action is another. 

I am generally a healthy person. I'm physically active, I eat well, I drink copious amounts of water, and I sleep as much as an athlete with a full-time profession can.  My diet doesn't vary much from day to day or week to week, although my consumption varies depending on my current level of activity. With that in mind, it occurred to me several weeks ago that the information I was acquiring through these resources was no longer impacting my training, but it was impacting the way I lived my day, my level of stress, and how I viewed myself. In my mind, I had become a number: calories consumed, calories burned, body fat %, mile time. The numbers started to define the way I felt about myself both as an athlete and as an individual on a daily basis, so I stopped looking at them. A seemingly small decision, this was a big shift for me. 

I keep a training log for personal reference, but it is private and, in general, I don't share my training. I don't think it's important. I am not active on social training websites like Strava, DailyMile, and Garmin because I train for myself; I run for myself and for the love of running. That's not to say I don't support healthy competition, but I don't ascribe to competition in training, and I know that if I did, my love for the sport would fade. It's a personal choice and it's one that works for me. It seemed only fitting, then, to make the same decision about the other training resources that were diminishing my love for training. While the numbers have their place, they cease to contribute to a healthy lifestyle when they become consuming. Self-worth should not be defined by mile times, weight, steps per day, hours trained, elevation gained, and rankings. When I can honestly say that these numbers don't affect the way I view myself and my performance as an athlete, maybe I'll look again. 

Life after the Slam

Life is a nightmare that prevents one from sleeping.
— Oscar Wilde

“You need to prepare yourself for how you’re going to feel when this is all over,” Larry said to me as we ran the weekend before Cascade Crest 100. “Prepare myself?” I thought. “I still have to get through two more races. I don’t even known if I’m going to be able to finish!” I let his words go as I lost myself in the continued excitement, preparation, and training that had been my existence since the Western States lottery last December. It’s not that I’m quick to disregard the advice of a friend; I just couldn’t wrap my mind around that piece yet. I needed to focus on the present task if I was ever going to make it.

Nearly six weeks have passed since I finished the Larry Slam. I spent the first two in a post-race combination of haziness and euphoria, completely shocked that I was actually able to do what I set out to do and grateful for the support of the friends and family who helped me reach that point. Then, everything started to resonate. Throughout the entire process, from lottery day through the finish of Pine to Palm, through the travel and the planning, I worked normal days, I trained, I went to family events, and I socialized with friends. For all intents and purposes, I lived a completely normal day-to-day life. And, yet, I didn’t. I lived and breathed the Larry Slam, and every significant life event and emotion that I needed to address (and there were a lot of them) was like an item added to a to-do list that I would deal with later. In the meantime, I would just run a really long way, pack another bag, or look at another aid station chart and not think about it.

Sometime two-three weeks post slam, the flood of emotions began. I was simultaneously excited, disappointed, relieved, sad, and overwhelmed. It was as though I woke up one morning and my brain finally decided to internalize all of the emotions I had cast aside and neglected for the last nine months. It was as though I had been asleep (without actually resting) all year and I finally awoke to find that life around me had changed. So, instead of resting, I ran. I didn’t run far or particularly hard, but I ran. I ran because it was what I knew how to do, because running is the reliable friend that always listens, because it distracted me from relationships, and work, and from the fact that my cat was ill. I got tired and stale. I was irritable and I was apathetic. I lost my appetite. I couldn’t sleep. I loved every second that I spent running, but I was burned out. So I ran more, perpetuating the cycle with which we’ve all become too familiar.

Finally, last weekend, I ran a 50k on some of my favorite trails. It was unplanned and, having come off several consecutive 70-mile training weeks, I knew it wouldn’t be fast. So I resigned myself to running for fun, to enjoying the trails in all of their fall beauty in every cliché way, to spending time with friends, and to not looking at my watch. I was tired, but I had fun. Separated from the racing mentality, I had over 6 hours to think about how I felt and what was important to me, about the things that were happening and what I had neglected. I realized what I was doing to myself and how that was impacting other aspects of my life.

Today is my second consecutive rest day. Those who know me know that this is unprecedented outside the context of intentional race recovery. I don’t plan to cease running (I derive pure joy from the time I spend running), but I do plan on slowing down, on taking a step back, on taking a moment to breathe to allow my mind to process the last 9+ months that flew by when I wasn’t paying attention. I plan to sleep. Because I have big plans for next year, and I want to experience, not cast aside, every single moment.

 

Pine to Palm 100: The Journey's End (or beginning...)

It is good to have an end to journey toward; but it is the journey that matters, in the end.
— Hemingway

 

Sarah, Jason, Larry, and me at the start (photo by Dana Katz).

Sarah, Jason, Larry, and me at the start (photo by Dana Katz).

As I stood under the dark, star-filled sky, near the big purple Rogue Valley Runners arch, I gave Larry a hug and whispered: “I won’t let you down.”  Nine months of training and racing had come down to this day. Two years ago, I would have given anything for just one 100-mile finish. On this morning, I was attempting my 4th in 11 weeks and 7th total. My ankle still hurt from Cascade Crest 13 days prior and, worn down from a summer of mountain racing, I was tired. To say that I was nervous would be an understatement. I knew I would give it my everything (I always do), but I didn’t know if my everything would be enough. I stood behind the arch as the crowd counted down, the 4th countdown I had heard in 11 weeks, and my eyes welled with tears. I was so excited and so grateful to have made it that far. The preceding 9 months flashed through my head like a slideshow of photos. 10...I was being lifted in the chair on lottery day…9...my back injury in February…8…Peterson Ridge Rumble…7…Capitol Peak 50…6…McDonald Forest…5…training camp…4…the overnight runs, the long runs, and the lunch runs...3...the physical therapy, the heat training, the yoga, the early mornings, the naps under my desk...2... Western States, Tahoe Rim Trail, Cascade Crest…1…it was time.

Start to Seattle Bar (~mile 29):

Having run Pine to Palm before, I knew what lie ahead. I had no goals going in other than to stay ahead of the cutoffs and to finish, but I had a feeling that, despite being tired, if my ankle held up, I had a good race in me. I paced myself, not knowing how my body would respond to running two 100s so close together, and ran conservatively. When I summited the climb up Greyback mountain in 2:37, significantly faster than the preceding year, I was elated. I stopped just long enough to take in the breathtaking view before making the descent. I knew I would get to see my crew (Sarah, Larry, and Jason) at Seattle Bar, and I was anxious to get there. Sarah (who also crewed me in 2014) thought this section was a place where I lost time last year, so I wanted to see how quickly I could get there. My soft goal was to arrive between 6:00-6:15.

Jason (the greatest of Power Rangers) rubbing my shoulders as Larry tried to make my iPod work (photo by Sarah Duncan).

Jason (the greatest of Power Rangers) rubbing my shoulders as Larry tried to make my iPod work (photo by Sarah Duncan).

As I made the descent down Greyback I was really starting to enjoy the morning. My ankle hurt, but it never seemed to get any worse, so I ran on it with caution and tried not to think about it. It wasn’t long before it started to get warm and, once I reached the start of the gravel road after the first aid station around mile 15, it was hot. The subsequent 14 miles to Seattle Bar are mostly on exposed fire road. The sun beat down as I made my way toward my crew. When I finally turned off on the rolling doubletrack, roughly 2 miles from the aid station, I was incredibly hot and had a list of things in my mind that I wanted to do when I saw my crew, chief among which was changing into a cooler shirt. I started to run faster, excited to see them and happy that I was going to make it there in the time I had predicted. I knew Sarah would be proud. As I started to run faster down a dip in the trail, I became distracted, thinking about popsicles and a shirt change and making Sarah proud, and I didn’t see the large tree branch overhanging the trail. I ran straight into it and it knocked me down. “Idiot!” I thought. My head hurt instantly.

Soon I turned the corner to the Seattle Bar aid station. I had a feeling Sarah would be waiting there for me and there she was, cowbell in hand, cheering me in. I told her I was hot, every bit as hot as when I came out of Duncan Canyon at States, I let her know what I needed, and handed her my vest as I made my way to the aid station to get weighed.

With a long climb ahead of me, we knew I needed to take a few minutes to cool down and refuel. Sarah and Larry loaded my vest and put ice everywhere like they did at States, while Jason (in costume nonetheless) massaged my shoulders. Soon, I was off to make the long climb up Stein Butte. Jason walked me out of the aid station and sponged me off: “I can’t believe I’m fucking back here,” I said, and I made my way toward the climb. I would see them again is ~10-11 miles, which we expected to take 3:30.

Seattle Bar to Squaw Lakes (~mile 39/42):

The climb up Stein Butte is, arguably, the most difficult and sustained of the race. Most runners also typically hit the climb at the hottest part of the day, which makes it even more difficult, and I was no exception. Larry and I have talked about this climb several times. In 2012, I fought the climb. In 2014, I learned that the best approach is to settle into in and accept that it’s just going to take a long time if you don’t want to blow up.

The climb was just as steep and hot as I remembered. Some sections seemed more runnable than they once did but, for the most part, it was a grind. For some reason, I was almost entirely alone for this section and, while I had planned on picking my iPod up at Seattle Bar, it was dead, despite charging it the day before, so I spent the climb alone and without distraction, which made time go by slower. However, albeit long and grueling, the climb up Stein Butte is beautiful singletrack. The September sun shines through and above the trees, and the trail is covered with leaves of every autumn color. I focused on the leaves. The sun beat down on me as I continued to climb. The aid station seemed to get further and further away as my water bottles got less and less full. Soon, I was too hot to think about anything other than the heat and getting to my crew. I was rapidly approaching the way I felt coming out of Duncan Canyon at Western States, and I knew Sarah and Larry would, once again, be able to help cool me down. I just needed to get to them, and so I pushed. 

Despite feeling horrible and overheated, it took me ~3:30 to cover the distance from Seattle Bar to Squaw Lakes, just as we’d anticipated. As I descended to the lake, I saw Jason’s smiling face, waiting to bring me in in his ever-encouraging way. “I’m in a really bad place,” I said, “and I need to figure out how to pull myself out of it.” I felt guilty as soon as I heard myself say it. It was true, but I didn’t want to burden my crew with those feelings. Jason ran with me to the aid station, where I picked up a water bottle and handed off my vest before running the ~3 miles around the lake.

Trying to pull myself together at the lake as Jason tried to calm me down (photo by Sarah Duncan).

Trying to pull myself together at the lake as Jason tried to calm me down (photo by Sarah Duncan).

As I ran around the lake, I tried to channel all of the positive feelings I felt at this point in the race last year and be thankful I was so far ahead of my previous time. Still, I fixated on feelings of not being good enough, of being angry with myself for feeling so terrible, of wondering if I’d be able to do this one more time. I reached the other side of the lake where Jason was, again, waiting to bring me to Larry and Sarah. I sat down, put my head in my hands and started to hyperventilate. Sarah pushed food on me (always her answer to my suffering). “You’ve been redlining all day, Des” Sarah said. “Stop!” I nodded my head and tried to stomach some food. The fact was that I didn’t feel like I was redlining. I was, without a doubt, working harder than I normal do, but I knew that was because I was more tired (physically and mentally) than I normally was. I could feel Cascade Crest in my legs and my throbbing ankle. I could feel the weight of the other three races on my shoulders as Jason massaged them. “I have to finish,” I said. “You need to take a few minutes,” Sarah told me. As I sat there, I told Larry I thought I was starting to blister on a toe that was missing a nail. We started to remove my sock, but soon realized that doing so would remove the other taping we'd so carefully applied, so we decided to leave it alone. “It’s fine,” I said. “It only hurts when I run.” With that bit of levity, I was ready to get up and begin the trek to Hanley Gap. Jason walked me out of the aid station: “You made it through the hottest part of the day," he said. "It’s only going to get better.” I knew he was right.

Squaw Lakes to Hanley Gap (~mile 50/52):

The stretch from Squaw Lakes to Hanley Gap is a long one, but I knew it would be significantly cooler, especially as I made my way into the trees. I left Squaw Lakes running with a guy named Todd, until I started to have GI issues and fell back to deal with them. Though we only ran together for a few miles, I was grateful for the company and started to forget about all of the pressure I felt while I ran around the lake, just enjoying being able share the trail with another runner. By the time I reached Hanley Gap, I was tired, but I had turned my attitude around. I arrived exactly when we expected. I was still on pace.

At Hanley Gap, getting ready to head out into the night (photo by Sarah Duncan).

At Hanley Gap, getting ready to head out into the night (photo by Sarah Duncan).

After summiting Squaw Peak and returning to the Hanley Gap aid station, I took a few minutes to change my shirt and refuel. At this point, I was really starting to feel Cascade Crest, not in my legs and lungs, but in my stomach. I was starving to the point of nausea, despite eating every 45 minutes. I refueled, took something for my GI, and grabbed my iPod (which my crew had charged in the time since Squaw Lakes) and headlamp, and I was ready for the dark stretch of fire road that would lead me to Dutchman Peak, where I would finally pick up a pacer.

Hanley Gap to Dutchman Peak (~mile 67):

Because I had such a difficult experience when I ran Pine to Palm in 2012, the race has, in my mind, always been a race to Dutchman Peak. If you can make it to Dutchman Peak before the cutoff, there is no reason, barring an injury, that you shouldn’t be able to finish the race. Despite being well ahead of the cutoffs already, I told myself that my race didn’t start until I reached Dutchman Peak, so, for me, things were just getting started.

The stretch between Hanley Gap and Dutchman Peak consists entirely of fire road that climbs gradually for 15 miles. It is a long, often tedious, dusty trek. I began this stretch in the daylight, but had to turn my headlamp on within a couple of miles. I turned my music up and watched the sunset over the mountains as I settled into the calm of the night and savored the cooler, albeit still warm, temperature. As night fell and runners spread out, I was alone, but, as I glanced around, the bats and the scorpions that filled the trail were, oddly, like familiar friends. Only once did I startle: when a rattlesnake crossed the trail at my feet. I turned my music down , clearly needing to be a little more vigilant.

I reached the base of Dutchman Peak as predicted, and I felt energized to be so far ahead of my time the preceding year. As I crested the hill, I saw Sarah, Larry, and Jason waiting in the dark: “Dutchman Peak, bitches!” I yelled as I approached them. They cheered. I looked at Sarah: “I think there are some people waiting for me to summit this peak before they go to bed, so let’s get it done.” With that, we began the climb up to the aid station, Metallica’s Hero of the Day blaring from the speakers above. I pointed to the lights in the valley to my right: “That’s Ashland, Sarah!” We checked in at the aid station, 20 minutes earlier than I had in 2014 and 3 hours ahead of the cutoff. I was going to finish. We took a few minutes to eat some warm food and then began the descent to Jackson Gap, where Larry and Jason were waiting at the car.

The descent was quick. We reached the car, restocked my vest, and Sarah and I were off to cover the 8-mile stretch to Long John Saddle, where I would pick Larry up for the remainder of the journey to Ashland to close the slam together.

Dutchman Peak to Long John Saddle (~mile 74):

Sarah and me at the start line. So thankful to have her to pace me from Dutchman Peak (photo by Larry Stephens).

Sarah and me at the start line. So thankful to have her to pace me from Dutchman Peak (photo by Larry Stephens).

Last year, the stretch from Dutchman Peak to Long John Saddle took and exceptionally long time. It’s not an overly difficult section of the course, but it’s a little technical on tired legs. In 2014, having run in forest fire smoke all day, I lost my stomach on this stretch, and never regained my ability to tolerate food. It was all I could do to drink fluids. This year, it was so nice to actually feel good during this section, appreciate the views of Ashland from the dark ridgeline, and enjoy the time on the trail with a good friend. Unfortunately, the GI issues I’d been battling during the day never subsided, so I continued to fight them during this stretch. I had to sit every time I needed to eat, and I soon started to experience fits of burping, which I’d never had before. I was able to run, but it was extremely uncomfortable.

Once again, the stretch from Dutchman Peak to Long John Saddle took longer than had anticipated, although I arrived exactly when Larry expected. While at the aid station, my head started to pound from running into the tree earlier in the race, so I took my hat off and adjusted my headlamp. We then tried to do something about the burping and intestinal issues n, but nothing seemed to help, so Larry and I were soon off into the night to cover the final stretch to Ashland. I left Long John Saddle almost two hours earlier than I had the preceding year.

Long John Saddle to Wagner Butte (~mile 85):

The sunrise from Wagner Butte (photo by Larry Stephens).

The sunrise from Wagner Butte (photo by Larry Stephens).

On the drive to the race start, I told Larry that I had aspirations of seeing the sunrise from Wagner Butte. In 2014, I reached Wagner Butte at 11:00 a.m., so this was a lofty goal. Larry humored me when I told him, but I knew his first goal was to see me to the finish.

As Larry and I made our way down the fire road to Wagner Butte, I was still so incredibly proud of how far I’d felt I’d come. Last year, this stretch was a death march in every sense. This year, Larry and I were running, talking, and joking like it was any other weekend run. We reached the Wagner Butte aid station around 4:20 a.m. We refueled and I changed my shirt, knowing that the sun would rise soon and I’d be even warmer than I already was.

We began the roughly 5-mile ascent to the summit of Wagner Butte in the pitch black. I knew making it by sunrise would be close, but I was hopeful. As we started to slow down and settle into a steady climb, I started to fall asleep as I hiked. I couldn’t carry on a conversation and I listed as I walked. Finally, Larry put his hands on my shoulders and told me to sit down. “I can’t sit,” I said. “I need to keep moving.” “You can’t sway all over the trail either,” he said. And so I sat against a log and closed my eyes for 2-3 minutes. I then ate a Gu and stood, ready to continue on. Larry talked at me and told me not to respond; he just wanted me to concentrate on moving forward. Then, remembering that when I started to feel sleepy at States Larry encouraged me to start running, I decided to start running, even if I was going uphill. From there on, I was awake.

As we exited the trees onto an open ridgeline, the sun started to rise. We were approaching the scree and the summit of Wagner Butte. “See?” I said. “I told you we’d see the sunrise from Wagner Butte.” Climbing the scree to get my flag was not nearly as difficult as I’d remembered. In fact, it was kind of fun. I could feel Larry’s pride as we reached the top and it gave me strength.

The descent from Wagner Butte is not a pleasant one. Once you run back over the ridgeline, you are then on steep downhill singletrack composed mostly of loose dirt, making it difficult to keep a steady footing, let alone climb over the down logs. As we made this descent, I started to slow. My feet were starting to burn. At one point when I started to run, I tripped over a rock and fell. A stick gouged inside the gash in my knee that I’d gotten early on in the race. I collapsed and silently held my breath, my eyes tightly shut as though holding in the pain. “Hold it together,” Larry said. “Hold it together.”  I took a deep breath, I got up, and we continued on the long descent that felt like it would never end.

At the summit of Wagner Butte (photo by Larry Stephens).

At the summit of Wagner Butte (photo by Larry Stephens).

We finally reached the Road 2060 aid station (mile 90) at 9:00 a.m. I handed a volunteer my flag, proof that I had summited the final climb. I knew then that I would finish. I ate some pancakes, which were so very welcome after another day and night of trying to stomach Gu. Once again, Larry and I were off.

Wagner Butte to the Finish (~mile 100.5):

The final 10-mile stretch from Road 2060 to the finish consists largely of fire road. Last year, I death marched the section almost entirely. This year, I swore that would not happen. It didn’t. My feet burned and my stomach hurt. I was simultaneously starving and nauseous. I moaned in pain. Still, I ran, taking only periodic walk breaks. “Okay,” said Larry. “You can walk it in and finish in over 30 hours or you can run and break 30.” In a shaky voice, I moaned through my pain and tears and asserted “I’m not walking it in!" I started to run and I didn’t stop. I was determined to touch down on the pavement of Ashland and finish in under 30 hours. It was everything I could do to keep moving. I wasn’t able to talk. Larry understood. He’d been there. He knew. “You are never going to feel this kind of pain again, Des,” he said. “Embrace it.” I ran harder, moaning in pain, moaning because I was fighting so hard, moaning because it fueled me. 

Larry and me running to the finish (photo by Sarah Duncan).

Larry and me running to the finish (photo by Sarah Duncan).

We finally reached the doubletrack jeep trail that leads into Ashland and saw the smiling faces of Jason and Sarah, who had hiked ~1-2 miles up to run the final stretch with us. I wanted to talk to them. I wanted to tell them about the night. I wanted to tell them about seeing the sunrise from Wagner Butte. I wanted to thank them for being there. All I could do was moan in pain., occasionally spewing profanity. Still, I ran and I ran hard. I touched down on the pavement of Ashland. I have never been so happy to see asphalt. As I descended into town, I ran faster than I did when I hit Placer Field in Auburn. I crossed the finish line in 29:28, a 3:33 course PR. I threw my handheld down on the ground, the lids few off, and water splashed everywhere. I hunched over and buried my face in my hands in complete disbelief that it was over and I had done it. I hugged Larry: “I hate you,” I said. He laughed. “I think that’s fair."

Larry and me at the finish (photo by Sarah Duncan). 

Larry and me at the finish (photo by Sarah Duncan). 

Writing this race report was difficult for many reasons (it’s hard to write about the same race three times, I’m tired of writing race reports this year, I’m tired), most of all because writing it meant that the Larry Slam was over. It’s hard to describe what goes into 9 months of training and injury prevention and recovery and race preparation. The travel and the pure physical exhaustion, not knowing how I would run one more step, let alone get up for work and function on a day-to-day basis, was physically and mentally draining. I was invested in this goal like no other, and I devoted every minute of every day to it in some capacity. I lived and breathed it. I loved it. It changed me in ways that I cannot describe. Even now, I can’t fully comprehend the journey. I lived an entire life in the span of 11 weeks and learned more about training, racing, friendship, and myself than I will ever be able to put into words. Over 400 miles raced in 4 states, over 165,000 ft. of elevation change, a bajillion Gu consumed, 9 very dear friends as crew/pacers, and the support of a running family bigger than I can enumerate. Larry Slam complete.

Here’s to next year! But, first, some rest.  

Cascade Crest 100: Weathering the Storm

And once the storm is over, you won’t remember how you made it through, how you managed to survive. You won’t even be sure whether the storm is really over. But one thing is certain. When you come out of the storm, you won’t be the same person who walked in.
— Haruki Murakami
Larry and me at the start line (photo by Sarah Duncan).

Larry and me at the start line (photo by Sarah Duncan).

It is no secret that I do not tolerate cold well. Despite spending the better part of my childhood and young adult life in Montana, my body simply shuts down in cold temperatures, and it does not take long. I suffer from Reynaud’s (a condition that causes my appendages to vasoconstrict quickly in order to draw heat to my core), as well as cold urticaria (a significant sensitivity that causes me to break out in hives when exposed to the cold). I have suffered hypothermia three times, two of which led to me not finishing races. As the 10-day forecast for the Washington Cascades started to change from sunny and warm to stormy and cold, my anxiety began to increase. I planned, knowing I’d need to eat more to stay warm, and packed nearly all of the layers I own, knowing I’d need to constantly change clothes. Thankfully, the day before the race, my friend Dennis and I decided we would run together as long as it made sense. Dennis is strong and experienced, and his offer of company helped calm my nerves.

Race morning was cold and breezy, but, ever the optimist, I held out hope that the weather would clear, even as we drove to the start line and it started to rain. I knew that a dry race was too much to ask for (the storm was coming and it was inevitable), but I hoped that the weather might clear enough that I didn’t have to start the race wet. I got my wish. An hour before the race started, the clouds parted and the sun shined through.

The Start to Tacoma Pass (mile ~23):

Dennis and I found each other in the crowd of runners at the start line and, from the first step, we ran together. The sun continued to shine through the clouds and it quickly started to feel warm and humid. Until about 5 miles in, when we crested an exposed hill and the wind picked up again, the weather was dry and calm. My goal was to make it as far as I could before the rain started. That was ~14 miles.

The first 10 miles or so of the course consist of steady climbing. Larry warned me that this climb was deceptively hard and not to overexert myself, so I took my time, treating it like the Escarpment at Western States. Once through that climb, it was steady running to Tacoma Pass, sometimes on fire road and sometimes on singletrack, often above 5,000 ft., where is was so windy and cold that I knew I could not stop moving for too long. It was beautiful and I felt great.

Running in to Tacoma Pass aid station (photo by Glenn Tachiyama).

Running in to Tacoma Pass aid station (photo by Glenn Tachiyama).

By the time I made the long descent to the Tacoma Pass aid station, I was soaked from the rain, but warming up as the elevation decreased, and I was beyond elated to see my crew (Sarah, Jeremy, and Eric) for the first time. I quickly refueld, changed my shirt, let them know what I would need when I saw them next, and I was off.

Tacoma Pass to Stampede Pass (~mile 33):

From Tacoma Pass, Dennis and I ran together and leap-frogged through Snowshoe aid station (~mile 28) and on to Stampede Pass. Sticking together, even when neither of us felt like talking, was comforting, and the time seemed to fly by. Entering Stampede Pass, I was again thrilled to see the smiling faces of Sarah, Jeremy, and Eric, and was ready to prepare for the night. At TRT100, not having a crew, I got into the habit of going through a mental checklist as I entered each aid station (food, clothes, medical, body temp), so I was ready when I saw them, and knew exactly what I needed. At the aid station, I changed my shirt, bra, confirmed I had my light, grabbed some food, and headed out into the dim forest, just behind Dennis. As I left, Sarah told me that I had about two hours before the storm really hit. She was right; in two hours, the heavens would unleash. 

Stampede Pass to Olallie Meadows (~mile 47):

Due to Cascade Crest’s atypical late start time (10:00 a.m.), the sun started to set at a much earlier point in the race than that to which I’m accustomed, even while running a 28-29-hour pace. By the time I reached the Meadow Mountain aid station (~mile 41), I had to pull my light out of my vest. 

After changing clothes at Stampede Pass (photo by Eric Lubell).

After changing clothes at Stampede Pass (photo by Eric Lubell).

The next ~6 miles to the Olallie Meadows aid station were dark and quiet. I left the aid station ahead of Dennis and, consequently, ran most of those miles entirely alone. The trail soon changed from smooth singletrack to very rocky terrain (similar to what I’m accustomed to seeing in areas of the Columbia River Gorge), and I had to slow my pace significantly to negotiate the rocks in the dark. I continued to eat on schedule and to run as well as I could, but my spirit was waning. I was tired, soaked, and incredibly nervous about navigating the trail, something that usually isn’t a problem for me. I knew, though, that I just needed to get to Olallie Meadows and my crew. I knew Sarah would know what to do, and I knew that Jeremy would be allowed to start pacing me there, provided he was willing to cover a few extra miles (despite pacers being allowed to start at Olallie, we hadn’t planned on him starting until Hyak).

The miles to get to Sarah, Eric, and Jeremy took what seemed like an eternity. By the time I turned the corner and heard the cheering at the aid station, I was severely depleted and in tears. Sarah sat me in a chair and I buried my head in my hands: “I don’t know what’s wrong. There’s nothing wrong with my body,” I said as I started to tear up. “You need food,” Sarah said. Sarah and I have logged thousands of miles together and she has been there for me at all but one 100-mile race.  No one knows me better, so when she handed me 1,000 calories in food and told me to eat it all, I did what she said. As I ate, Eric, knowing that my back had hurt since I woke that morning, rubbed my shoulders. Within minutes, I felt like a new person. With a tearstained face, I looked up at Jeremy, who was sympathetically standing over me with a look of concern, and said “I need you. Are you okay with starting now?” Before I could finish my food, Jeremy had left and returned in his running clothes, ready to run.

I changed my shirt once again, finished my food, and stood from the chair a new person. Jeremy gave me a hug and we were off, sailing down the trail like it was any other weekend. 

Olallie Meadows to Hyak (~mile 53):

The distance from Olallie Meadows to Hyak is short, but precarious and unnerving. The first mile or so was fun, runnable singletrack, and then we reached the rope, which we had to use to navigate down an exceptionally steep section of singletrack. It was so ridiculous that all we could do was laugh. Once at the bottom of the rope section, we quickly made our way into the notorious 2.5-mile, abandoned railroad tunnel.

Sarah and Eric, patiently waiting under a tarp (photo by Jeremy Long).

Sarah and Eric, patiently waiting under a tarp (photo by Jeremy Long).

I knew the tunnel was coming and I tried to narrow my thoughts and just think about the other side (Hyak aid station), but it was difficult for me. I struggle with enclosed spaces and the air in the tunnel was so stale and laden with mildew that I started wheezing. A short section mileage wise, but a long one mentally, Jeremy helped me get through by distracting me with stories. At one point, another runner ran past us and suggested we turn our lights off. Reluctantly, I turned mine off, as we moved through the tunnel in complete darkness, appreciating the eeriness, I tried to be present in the moment. 

We reached Hyak aid station (literally the light at the end of the tunnel) in great spirits and ahead of my predicted time (11:00 p.m.). I ate and changed into dry clothes once again. As we left the aid station, a volunteer commented on how skillfully I changed my clothes. At this point in the race, it had become second nature for me. “Lady Gaga has nothing on me today,” I said, and we left the aid station to continue our journey to Kachess Lake, where Sarah would take over pacing.

Hyak to Keechelus Ridge (~mile 60):

My energy was waning a bit as we hit the flat pavement, but I knew that, although a steady climb lie ahead, the terrain would be easy to navigate. From there we had a fun, comfortable run/hike in what had become a light drizzle. That drizzle was short lived. Within a couple miles the heavens unleashed once again and the downpour resumed. At this point we were climbing to Keechelus Ridge and, although moving as well as I could, I was moving slowly uphill. I was getting cold.

It took much longer to get to Keechelus Ridge than I anticipated and, by the time we arrived, I was freezing. I knew I needed to take some time there and get warm if I was ever going to be strong enough to finish.  I sat down among a group of runners huddled around a small propane fire as Jeremy got me soup and helped me put on every layer I was carrying with me.

As I sat there, listening to the wind blow over the ridge and the downpour hit the tent, I heard drop after drop come over the ham radio. The water pooled under our feet and portions of the tent started to sink as water accumulated. I did everything I could to get warm. Still, I was freezing. My anxiety increased. I sat in that chair for what must have been at least 30 minutes, hoping I’d get warm or, better still, that the storm would lighten up. I didn't. It didn’t. Jeremy kneeled next to me and told me we needed to go. “I’m terrified to go out there,” I said. “I’m so afraid of getting that cold again.” As tears welled in my eyes, he stared at me: “I’ve got you,” he said. “I won’t let anything happen to you." I closed my eyes and took a deep breath of trust and confidence in his words, and I stood from the chair. “107 out,” I said. “Be safe, 107,” I heard a volunteer yell back.

Keechelus Ridge to Kachess Lake (~mile 68):

The volunteers told us we had over 6 miles to go to Kachess Lake, further than we’d anticipated. We knew that we needed to take advantage of the downhill ahead of us to increase our body temperatures, and so we ran as consistently and as fast as I could hold pace. I was quickly surprised by how well I was able to move, despite being so cold, and that I was still able to stomach food. My body temperature increased and my spirits lifted. When we reached Kachess Lake aid station, Eric and Sarah were waiting outside the car in the pouring rain. I changed all of my clothes, my socks, and my shoes, ate some soup, and Sarah and I were off for the remainder of the night. We wouldn't see Eric and Jeremy again until after sunrise.     

Kachess Lake to Mineral Creek (~mile 73):

As difficult as the preceding 68 miles had been, I knew that the moat difficult portions of the course lie ahead, as did the worst of the weather. Sarah and I ran ~1 mile of nice trail, feeling relatively dry before we turned down the infamous Trail from Hell. We quickly had to cross a stream that, during dry weather, probably wouldn’t have been any harder than a couple hops across. In the rain, the water level had risen, and the moss-covered boulders were too slippery for me to negotiate on tired legs. After several failed attempts to cross via the rocks, I resigned myself to getting wet once again and forded the stream. My dry socks and shoes, the luxury I had enjoyed for all of a mile, were now drenched again and would be for several more hours.

The Trail from Hell lived up to its name. I was cognizant enough to recognize how much fun it would have been on fresh legs to jump the trees and rocks, to climb the needles, and to slide down the rock faces, but, in the dark and the rain, wearing a poncho, it was all I could do to stay upright. Hours passed. The sun began to rise and, again, it started to feel strange to be where I was in the race at that time of day. It was then that I decided I didn’t like the late start.

As we descended to Mineral Creek aid station, the rain lightened up briefly, and Sarah and I started to warm. We stopped at the aid station to refuel, but forgot that the one and only bag I had dropped, one that had dry layers for both of us was there. We continued on.

 

Jeremy, Sarah, and me climbing from Mineral Creek to the car (photo by Eric Lubell).

Jeremy, Sarah, and me climbing from Mineral Creek to the car (photo by Eric Lubell).

As we climbed the gravel road out of the aid station, we were surprised to see Jeremy walking down from the car. We knew he and Eric would be meeting us above the Mineral Creek aid station, but it didn’t register with either one of us that we had reached that point. I don’t think I smiled that much at any other point in the race.  Seeing them was amazing.

As we made our way toward the car, I asked what time it was. When they told me, I was surprised. I thought the previous section would take much less time than it did. I was discouraged: “I’m stronger than this,” I said to Sarah as she, Jeremy, and I hiked to the car. “I ran a faster race than this. I’m better than this.” I said. “Then move your fucking ass!” Sarah said. I started to run again until we reached the car, both frustrated with myself and smiling from Sarah’s levity (I should have known she wouldn't let me feel sorry for myself). Sarah and I both changed clothes and then continued the climb to No Name Ridge.

Mineral Creek to No Name Ridge (~mile 80):

As we made the climb to No Name, Sarah and I found ourselves leap-frogging with another runner and his pacer, who expressed their anxiety about making the next cutoff. As quickly as I perked up seeing Jeremy, my mood instantly changed at the thought of missing a cutoff. “What cutoff?” I asked Sarah. “Just keep moving,” she said. “When is the cutoff?” I pushed. “You have 1:40 to go two miles,” she said. "You need to keep moving." It seemed like so much time and like not enough. My left heel was starting to hurt from all of the pounding on the wet terrain, and we were climbing. I was moving as quickly as I could, but it didn't feel fast enough. I started to get upset, but I didn’t stop moving.

We reached No Name Ridge well ahead of cutoff. There was no need to worry. As always, I should have listened to Sarah.  We visited briefly with Matt and Betsy as we refueled. Matt assured me that I was going to make it, that no one drops at Thorp Mountain (the next aid station). “Oh, I'm not dropping," I said. "I have run 280+ miles of this slam. They’ll have to pull my ass off the course." I ate another serving of tater tots, grabbed a couple of pancakes for the trail, and Sarah and I were on our way to Thorp Mountain.

No Name Ridge to French Cabin (~mile 88):

As Sarah and I made our way to Thorp Mountain, the weather started to get worse and worse, though we’d expected it to gradually improve. The wind picked up, especially in the exposed sections, and it started to rain harder.

It was difficult for Sarah and me to keep our body temperatures up because we couldn’t hold a consistent pace. We were climbing. Up along exposed ridgelines, through the needles, and to the summit of Thorp Mountain, we were climbing continuously. My teeth were chattering and I was shaking. We continued to climb. Tears welled in my eyes. We continued to climb. “I’ve come too far for this to fall apart, Sarah.” We continued to climb. “I’m getting hypothermic,” I finally yelled back to Sarah against the wind. “You are not getting hypothermic on my watch, Des!” Sarah said. She’d seen it happen twice; she wasn’t going to let it happen again. “I need to get off this fucking mountain,” I said. "Keep moving," she yelled back. This section, probably the hardest for me, is the one of which I’m most proud. I was suffering, truly suffering. I was freezing and I was scared and I was crying, but I never stopped moving. I hiked and I ran and I ate when I needed to. I never death-marched and I never gave up. With relentless forward motion, with every single step, I gave everything I had in me, and I never stopped moving. 

As we finally started to descend the mountain, the temperature started to increase noticeably and we heard an aid station. “That can’t be French Cabin,” I said. “It’s too soon.” We turned a corner and saw a sign welcoming us to French Cabin aid station. We had made it to mile 88. “Wipe your tears, Des,” Sarah said. “We don’t cry at aid stations.”

French Cabin to Silver Creek (~mile 95):

We stayed at French Cabin just long enough to get some soup to take with us. As soon as we finished eating, we crumpled our cups and began running the long descent from the aid station, I with renewed energy knowing that we were running to Jeremy and Eric, who would be waiting to see us at the final aid station.

Sarah and me running in to Silver Creek aid station (photo by Jeremy Long).

Sarah and me running in to Silver Creek aid station (photo by Jeremy Long).

Despite being mostly downhill and very runnable, the journey from French Cabin to Silver Creek aid station seemed to take a long time, partially due to anticipation and partially because it was further than we originally thought. “I just want to get to Jeremy and Eric,” I’d tell Sarah over and over. For me, reaching them, getting to that aid station, meant that I would finish. I knew what the aid station looked like from when I’d crewed before, but every switchback started to look the same. Finally, after another eternity, we heard cheering. “We made it off the mountain, Des!” Sarah said. I couldn’t have been happier or more energized. I had made it through the storm and my goal of a sub-30 hour finish was in reach. 

Silver Creek to the Finish (mile 100):

Jeremy and me at Silver Creek aid station.

Jeremy and me at Silver Creek aid station.

Sarah and I stayed at Silver Lake just long enough to drop some gear with Eric and Jeremy and eat something. I turned to Sarah: “Let’s finish this effing race.” It was 3:00pm, and I had just under an hour to make it to the finish if I wanted to break 30 hours. I ran and walked as fast as I could, but my ankle was in excruciating pain. “You need to push harder,” Sarah said every time I slowed down. “I’m running as fast as I can,” I replied. “I feel like my ankle is going to fucking rupture.” “Your ankle isn’t going to fucking rupture,” Sarah yelled. “Run faster.” My watch had long since died and I relied on Sarah to monitor my pace. She knew how much  I wanted to break 30 hours, and she pushed me. I had plenty of time if the distance to the finish line was exactly what we anticipated, but, since so many aid stations had been further than we expected, we didn't know for sure. I must have asked her every 30 seconds what time it was. She pushed me harder. 

As we ran down the road and into Easton, I could see the fire station where the race starts/finishes in the distance, but it never seemed to get any closer. Another runner ran by and told me how much time I had if I wanted to break 30 hours. It was his goal too. I moaned in pain, my ankle burning with every step. Finally, we reached the train tracks outside the fire station. “I fully expect you to drop me, Des,” said Sarah. “I can’t keep up with you.” With that, I took off as hard and as fast as I could. I rounded the corner to the fire station, Jeremy and Eric there to cheer me in. I crossed the finish line in 29:52 and I threw down my water bottle, completely dumbfounded by what had happened over the course of the last day.

If a picture could write a blog... Sarah and me running to the finish line (photo by Glenn Tachiyama).

If a picture could write a blog... Sarah and me running to the finish line (photo by Glenn Tachiyama).

I never toe the start line of a race with the presumption that I will finish. I toe the line knowing that I will give everything I have to give on that day and hope with every fiber that it’s enough. I planned for this race, but I was terrified to run it. I didn’t want to believe that the outcome was predetermined by the weather, and so I fought. When I finished, and even now, I’m still amazed by and proud of what I was able to overcome. I have never been so scared. I did not finish Cascade Crest the same runner I was when I started it. With that, I am both humbled and proud, excited and terrified as I make my way to southern Oregon tomorrow to toe the line of the final race in the Larry Slam: Pine to Palm 100.

 

 

Tahoe Rim Trail 100: A Glimpse of Heaven, a Taste of Hell

Let this hell be our heaven.
— Richard Matheson
Around mile 40 (photo by Facchino Photography).

Around mile 40 (photo by Facchino Photography).

 A friend once told me that he couldn’t wait for the day when I wrote a race report about a 100-miler where nothing went wrong. To that, I say that such a race report is either untruthful or uninteresting. Too many things can happen over the course of running 100 miles through the mountains to ever hope that nothing will go wrong. We train. We prepare. We run. We eat. We problem solve. Things still go wrong. It is the process of working through those difficulties and taking one more step, even when everything seems hopeless, that makes us the runners we are and the finish lines rewarding. On that note, this will not be a race report about running 100 miles; it will be one about running 12.5 miles at the Tahoe Rim Trail 100, because a race report about 89 perfect miles just isn’t interesting.

It had already been dark for several hours as I sat in a chair at the Tunnel Creek aid station (mile 67.5), chilled and tired from my second pass through the Red House Loop and battling GI issues. I watched runner after runner go into the medical tent and not come back out as I slowly ate some potato chips and tried to keep myself from falling into the dark hole I could feel myself entering. I thought about what lie ahead (because TRT 100 is a two-loop course, I had already seen everything once) and, while I never considered dropping, I couldn’t fathom how I would continue.

Around mile 56  (photo by Colleen Powers).

Around mile 56  (photo by Colleen Powers).

"You need to stay warm," I thought, as I slowly put on layers, first a jacket, then a buff, then mittens with chemical hand warmers. I stared down at my feet. "Are you okay?" asked my pacer, Colleen. We had already been at that aid station at least 8-10 minutes. "I’m tired and I feel like crap," I said. "Nothing that everyone else around me doesn’t feel too." I kept staring at my feet as though doing so would miraculously give them the energy necessary to start running again. As I looked up, I saw Ann Trason enter the medical tent with a runner she was pacing. Ann Trason, whose tenacity, strength, and will have always made her an inspiring person to me. At that moment, I knew that no amount of sitting or eating or thinking was going to solve my problems. I had done what I could do during that moment of my race. What I needed to do now was get up and keep pushing, to find some strength, no matter how long it took and no matter how hard it was.

I stood from the chair and I entered the medical tent, which, as anyone who has crewed me will attest, I never do. In my mind, entering a medical tent often means never leaving the aid station, and I don’t want to give myself that option. I walked up to Ann Trason: "You don’t know me," I said, "but seeing you gave me the motivation to get out of that chair." We chatted for a minute as her runner sat with the medical staff. As I started to leave, she hugged me, which gave me in mental fortitude what I currently lacked in physical strength, and I left Tunnel Creek, running back into the night.

The next 5 miles consisted of a steady climb toward the Diamond Peak aid station. My spirits were still good, but I was fading. I was three weeks out from finishing Western States and I had never been so tired in my life. I had to stop several times along the trail, leaning against the granite boulders, just to catch my breath and bring myself back to center after listing from side to side (almost off) the trail. Colleen tried to talk to me, but even conversation couldn’t keep me awake. By the time we reached the Bullwheel aid station at ~72, the wind had picked up significantly and I was getting cold, so Colleen and I stopped under the tent to take shelter for a few minutes. It was during this time that I discovered my love for Goldfish crackers. Apparently, when my GI gives out and my stomach isn’t cooperating, Goldfish crackers are the greatest thing I’ve ever tasted. As I sat with a mixing bowl of crackers in my lap, Colleen looked at her phone. "I wasn't sure if I should tell you this," she said, "but you’re listed as a DNF." All sleepiness subsided at that instant, and I was simultaneously livid and defeated. "What do you mean I’m listed as a DNF? I didn’t quit. I’ve never come close to quitting! I checked in at every single aid station!" I looked over at the kid who was singlehandedly manning the aid station overnight: "Did you get my bib number? I am here. I didn't quit." He acknowledged my number and told me he noted it as Colleen assured me that my next pacer, Kari, was already trying to resolve the situation. Then it occurred to me that everyone at home who was following along probably also thought I had dropped. I asked Colleen to send a message to a friend that I was okay and still on course. After she sent the message, we continued the climb to the Diamond Peak.

Around mile 60 (photo by Colleen Powers).

Around mile 60 (photo by Colleen Powers).

Not long after leaving Bullwheel, I started to get tired once again. The flood of emotion after hearing I was listed as a DNF took the last of my energy and I was relegated to a death march. Uphill or down, it didn’t matter. I was death marching to Diamond Peak and I still had 8 miles to go. After a half mile, Colleen tried to motivate me by telling me how close we were to the aid station. I hunched over: "It feels so far away," I said. "and I have no idea how I'm going to make that climb again." "You can't think about that right now," Colleen said. "You need to think about getting to Diamond Peak. These are probably going to be 7 of the hardest miles you've ever covered, but you're going to have to get through them."

Death marching from exhaustion, I started to get really cold. Entering this race, my predisposition to hypothermia was always my greatest concern, so I knew I needed to do something about the chill quickly; I was just moving too slowly to get my body temperature back up, despite all of the layers I was already wearing. So, I wrapped myself in Colleen’s shiny gold emergency blanket and continued my death march, the blanket blowing and making a crunching sound in the wind as runner after runner passed me, disappearing into the darkness. A death march. I was relegated to the death march that I swore wouldn’t happen again. I was so disappointed in myself. I knew I would pull out of it (I had to), but it was everything I could do just to push forward, let alone see to the other side I knew I’d eventually reach. 

Kari and me at the top of Diamond Peak, mile ~82.

Kari and me at the top of Diamond Peak, mile ~82.

Colleen was right. Those 7 miles were some of the most difficult I've ever covered, not because the terrain was technical (although it was) or because it was cold and windy and I was having trouble breathing (all of those things were issues), but because I was so depleted and unimaginably tired. As we approached the Diamond Peak aid station after what seemed like an entire night, it occurred to both Colleen and me that I had not eaten in at least 3 hours. It was an inexcusable mistake on my part, but one I had made nonetheless. I told Colleen I was going to stay at that aid station until the sun came up. "I need to pull my shit together mentally if I'm going to be able to do that climb again, I said." We walked into the aid station and saw Kari, who would be my next pacer. She wrapped her arms around me and asked what I needed. "A new body and a better attitude," I said. "She needs food," Colleen said. The two of them sat me down, still wrapped in the emergency blanket. Kari brought me a plain pancake, which was a welcome change from the Gu and PB&J I'd been eating for hours. I asked for another, this time dripping in syrup. I inhaled that one too. Then I looked around me to see runners everywhere lying down, some getting medical attention and some sleeping. "I'm going to lie down for 15 minutes," I said. "No more than 15 minutes, though. I need to finish this." Kari nodded and agreed to set a timer. I took the emergency blanket to a corner of the room and lied down next to the other runners. Fifteen minutes later, Kari tapped me on the shoulder: "It's time to go," she said. As I sat up, Colleen kneeled down next to me and gave me a hug. I thanked her for getting me to that point and I started to stand. 

Kari and I checked out of the aid station and began to make the climb up Diamond Peak. "I need to finish this race," I said. "I have to finish." "You will," she said. "You have 11 hours to cover 22 miles." It seemed both like a world of time and like not enough. We began the two-mile climb up Diamond Peak, which, surprisingly, felt better at mile 80 than it did at mile 30. On my first loop, it took 57 minutes, so I expected it to take me somewhere around 1:15-1:20 on the second loop. To my surprise, it took 47 minutes and I felt amazing. I was tired, but I was not in pain, and I had energy. When we reached the top of the climb, runners were cheering, no doubt because they, too, had no idea how they were going to complete that climb again. I looked back at the beautiful view, and then I kneeled down to retie my shoes, ate a Gu, and looked at Kari: "I'm ready to run now," I said. From there and for the next ~20 miles, I ran my way to the finish line at Spooner Lake, feeling just as strong as I did when I started the race.

Tahoe was not a perfect race for me and to say that it was would be untrue. I was tired in a way I could never have imagined and I had GI issues. I felt defeated by the inaccuracy of the race tracking and I spent a good 7 miles death marching with an emergency blanket wrapped around me. But, I also had 89 amazingly good, strong miles in a breathtaking place (both literally and figuratively) that holds a special place in my heart as one that was dear to my father. For that and for the amazing support I had both from race volunteers and new friends, I am incredibly grateful. They say that TRT 100 is "a glimpse of heaven, a taste of hell." It is true, and to that end, I say that we cannot experience one without the other.

Western States 100: The Final Chapter

Courage is not having the strength to go on; it is going on when you don’t have the strength.
— Roosevelt
My crew (Larry, Sarah, and Megan) and me two days before the race.

My crew (Larry, Sarah, and Megan) and me two days before the race.

"Don't blink," said my friend Larry as we ran the weekend after the Western States lottery. "It will be here before you know it." Six and a half months and several hundred training hours later, I found myself standing in the dark, among a crowd of runners, staring up at the iconic white arch that read "Western States 100-Mile Endurance Run. Squaw Valley to Auburn, CA." I stood in complete awe as I watched the clock count down the minutes until the start of the race. A runner approached me: "Are you okay? You kinda look like you're freaking out." "I'm great," I said with a shaky voice. "I just can't believe I'm actually here." As the race clock ticked, the crowd started to count down: 5...4...3...2...1. It was time. I blinked, and six and a half months had passed before I knew it.

Squaw Valley to Robinson Flat (miles 1-29.7):

I began the 2,550 ft. climb up the Escarpment out of Squaw Valley and quickly felt the effects of the increasing altitude. As the sun slowly started to rise behind me, I began to hike backwards to see the orange and yellow light shine over the mountains that surround Lake Tahoe. "Wow," I thought. "I'm really here." The crowd was quiet, but the energy was deafening. 

The roughly 4.5-mile climb up the pass was mostly silent until runners began to reach the top where we were greeted by a small crowd that had hiked the climb in the pre-dawn hours to cheer us on.

Once at the top of the climb, I dipped over the other side of the mountain and followed the Western States trail